Merkel coalition loses German state poll, upper house majority

9th May 2010, Comments 0 comments

Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition suffered a stinging defeat in a state poll Sunday that also cost it its majority in the upper house, projections showed, amid voter anger over a Greek bail-out.

Just two days after parliament approved the colossal rescue package for Greece, voters in the western region of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), Germany's most populous state, handed Merkel's centre-right alliance a bruising debacle.

Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) won around 34 percent -- their worst result ever in NRW -- with allies the Free Democrats (FDP) polling 6.6 percent, leaving them far short of the majority they enjoyed in the state legislature.

Meanwhile, the opposition centre-left Social Democrats also polled around 34 percent, the Greens 12.5 percent and the relatively new political outfit, the far-left Linke party, scored six percent.

With no clear winner, the results mean that the two strongest parties will scramble to cobble together a ruling alliance, or perhaps link up to form a "grand coalition".

NRW is ruled by the same centre-right coalition Merkel has in Berlin, making the poll a damaging referendum on her government eight months after she won re-election.

The state is also home to the Ruhr rust belt region whose economic misery has deepened in the recession.

The impact on the national level was already clear, with Merkel's centre-right sacrificing its majority in the Bundesrat upper house. This will hobble the chancellor in pushing through key reforms in Europe's top economy.

"I can only warn the CDU against trying to put a positive spin on this result. It is a huge disappointment," said Wolfgang Bosbach, a leading conservative deputy.

FDP leader Guido Westerwelle, who is also Merkel's vice-chancellor and foreign minister, called the poll result a "warning shot" from voters that would have clear national consequences.

"Citizens need to know that we have heard their message. We must redouble our efforts to win back their lost confidence in our work," he said.

Conservative NRW premier Juergen Ruettgers blamed headwinds from Berlin, where the governing coalition has been marred by squabbling since it took power in October, for his "bitter" defeat.

"It had to do with the government in Berlin's start but also the difficult situation in Greece," he said.

The timing of the election could hardly have been worse for Merkel's centre-right alliance, which has ruled NRW since 2005.

Germans strongly oppose the 22.4 billion euros (28.6 billion dollars) in loans over three years to debt-wracked Greece approved Friday as Germany grapples with its own dire fiscal straits.

Underlining the poll's importance, Merkel scheduled 15 personal appearances in the state and staged a media blitz this week to defend the aid to Greece.

But the chancellor has also faced criticism in Germany and abroad of dragging her feet over the loans for Athens and thereby exacerbating the crisis.

The Social Democrats abstained in Friday's vote on the Greek loan package.

The loss of the Bundesrat will effectively halt an FDP drive to cut income taxes by 16 billion euros from 2012.

It will also give the centre-left the power to block health care reforms planned by the coalition, and to restore an initiative to mothball the country's nuclear reactors against the wishes of the Merkel government.

The vote's impact will be lasting as well as it is the only state election planned this year.

"Scarcely one of the big projects that the conservatives and the FDP promised seven months ago in their coalition agreement will -- if the polls are correct -- survive this Sunday," the Tagesspiegel am Sonntag newspaper said.

© 2010 AFP

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